Late one summer afternoon in 2012, I happened to find myself in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, wandering about in a tangle of streets and alleyways in a busy part of downtown, trying to locate a gay bathhouse and sex club called Spa Adam. I had the address, but the numbering of the alleys seemed to be out of sequence and I couldn’t figure out the logic of the urban plan. I was about to give up in despair when I suddenly stumbled on the place, built into a gracious old house with a balcony, and clearly signposted. Once I did find it, I wondered how I could have missed it, not just because it was so conspicuous and so easy to identify, but because blaring from the doorway at high volume in the small street was British pop singer Adele’s current hit, “Someone Like You.”
In the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, assemblage [agencement] carries connotations of connection, event, transformation, and becoming. Privileging desire, affect, and transversal energies over cognition, it would seem an unlikely choice to define cognitive assemblages; however, the broader definition of cognition I employ brings my argument somewhat closer to theirs (although significant differences remain). I want to define cognition as a process of interpreting information in contexts that connect it with meaning. This view foregrounds interpretation, choice, and decision and highlights the special properties that cognition bestows, expanding the traditional view of cognition as human thought to processes occurring at multiple levels and sites within biological life forms and technical systems. Cognitive assemblage emphasizes cognition as the common element among parts and as the functionality through which parts connect.
Donald Davidson once told me that to be able to use a rule one must first have the concept of error. And I used this idea in a work, changing Davidson’s words to read, “The softest rule sheathes the razor edge of error.” I always thought there was something wrong with Davidson’s remark, but I could never put my finger on the mistake (or, should I say, lay my hand on it?). Wittgenstein says in On Certainty, “Practice in the use of the rule also shews what is a mistake in its employment” (OC, p. 6e). Do I want to say that rule and error are not separable as Davidson wanted to think? Wittgenstein’s remark does not rule out that error might, in some way yet to be determined, be logically prior to the rule.
What happens when we stumble upon a decaying human corpse or, in a more ordinary case, upon an open wound, shit, vomit, brutally torn-out nails or eyes? What we experience in such situations is not just a disgusting object but something much more radical: the disintegration of the very ontological coordinates which enable us to locate an object into external reality “out there.” The essay analyzes different ways we cope with such disturbing excesses, passing through Kant, Hegel, Rosenkranz, Lacan, and Kristeva. The concluding point is that, in the guise of a disgusting object, the subject encounters a stand-in for itself: the ultimate “abject” is the subject itself.
In Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, Gilles Deleuze contrasts philosophy and revelation. Expressionism is the privileged modality of immanence and intelligibility, and is thus opposed to a “knowledge by signs” that characterizes the domain of revelation and is supposedly meant to foster faith in ignorant people. The ontological dimension of revelation — that is its necessity — is then dismissed by Deleuze’s reading. Emmanuel Lévinas, following an apparently inverted logic, reproaches Spinoza for having subjected revelation to an overly rigid ontological necessity, thus missing its “signifying” value. Do we then find too many or too few signs in Spinoza ? By focusing on Spinoza’s method of interpretation as developed in the Theological-Political Treatise, I attempt here at challenging these approaches and at showing how the issue of the symbolic inscribes itself in Spinoza’s project. I define the symbolic as this dynamic of overinterpretation (superstition?) without which philosophical understanding would be impossible.
What I want to propose is that, in sight of the planetary bodies that began to appear regularly in the newspapers, magazines, and on television in the late 1960s, what I have called negative prosodic cosmography becomes, for some poets, a tool for the designation and description of the wrong world. For the most interesting poets of the age, photographic images of the earth taken from space provided the clearest evidence of the wholesale falsity of the creeping discourse of maudlin, lopsided universalism that carried the images aloft into the public sphere and pervaded the expression of their meaning and significance. The compulsion to satirize this public discourse animated a number of poets of the period. But I also want to go further and suggest that it may be a useful theoretical optic for reading a number of twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetries to conceive an entirely wrong world as a condition for maintaining its refusal on a daily, practical basis, and thus also as a condition of something like a utopian project to be realized at the far end of that resistance. The maintenance of the conceptual links and wormholes between, on one hand, a transformed totality of social relations, and the current state of things on the other, is a task intrinsic and essential to the aesthetic relation. Poetry is the art most capable not only of securing and maintaining this relation but also of flooding it with revolutionary energy.
Students of ancient Chinese art face a perpetual challenge: they have few contemporaraneous documents to rely upon in exploring its intended meaning. Although China is famous for her long history and rich literary legacy, ancient writers seem to have determined early on what they would write about and what they would avoid putting in words. One subject they consistently evaded were the architecture and objects dedicated to the dead – the construction of thousands of richly furnished tombs and the massive creation of ritual paraphernalia used in ancestor worship. It may be argued that writings on such matters actually existed but have perished in the course of history, or that such documents may still be hidden somewhere waiting to be discovered. But I doubt that this is the case. A recurrent pattern indicates a deep taboo against writing about artistic practices related to the netherworld. Thus, although ancient ritual canons contain detailed instructions about how to conduct funerary rites, the prescriptions stop right before the moment of entombment. Similarly, few passages from the vast corpus of Eastern Zhou and Han texts, including many newly excavated documents, record the world of deceased ancestors in any detail. The scarcity of such writing cannot be taken as evidence for the lack of interest in these matters. To the contrary, people of this period were preoccupied with the construction of their posthumous homes; their numerous inventions in funerary architecture, decoration, and furnishing made this period the Golden Age of Chinese funerary art. What the contemporaneous writers’ silence on these inventions indicates, therefore, should be understood as a self-imposed literary restriction. We sense the same restriction in a famous dialogue between Confucius and his disciples. Asked to characterize a wise man the master replied: “He is the one who respects ghosts and gods but keeps them at a distance.” To philosopher and historians, matters “kept at a distance” were subjects of religious belief and artistic imagination unsuitable for recording in texts.
In “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance” (Critical Inquiry 42 [Spring 2016]: 429–38), Catherine Malabou offers her thoughts on the enigmatic topics of biopower and biopolitics. The former term is thought to derive conceptually from Michel Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality (1976). The latter was formulated originally as early as 1912, though the term is often attributed to the Swedish political scientist Rudolf Kjellén, who, in the 1920s, referred to it as a logical alternative to his concept of geopolitics. Essentially biopower refers to the power of the state to use biological knowledge to intrude into the biological aspects of life in order to regulate or control populations under its influence. Biopolitics refers either to the exercise of political power over the biological aspects of life or the intersection between political power and biology.
Norman MacLeod’s response to my essay “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance” is extremely helpful because it allows for a long-awaited discussion, that is, for a new type of exchange among biologists and philosophers (see Norman MacLeod, “Response to Catherine Malabou, ‘One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance,’” Critical Inquiry 43 [Autumn 2016]: 191–99). The problem is that this discussion is not the one imagined by MacLeod. Rather, it is generated, in a certain sense, by the holes in his response and argument.